May 23, 2018, 10:46 am IST
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Three year review of Modi government

Three year review of Modi government

K.C. Singh, Jun 16, 2017

K.C Singh

Just past three years Modi government has arrived at multiple inflexion points at home and abroad.

At home, the "Acche Din" IOU, advertised since 2014, is now sought to be encashed by the nation's farmers, who earlier bore peacefully the harrowing consequences of demonetisation. Modi government's sweeping electoral victory in UP election was read by them as strong endorsement of that policy, marketed as pain-now for gain-later. That fiction has evaporated in last few weeks as delayed effects of an ill considered move, badly implemented, are now manifesting as rural economic cycle of crop sowing, harvesting and marketing stands disrupted. Fall in crop prices, though causing jubilation in finance ministry as inflation has dropped, is feeding rural unrest. Farmers in many states are mobilising to protest and seek debt write-off, which having been promised by PM Modi to UP farmers during electioneering can hardly be denied in other states.

It is externally that the mutating environment is presenting fresh challenges to South Block and Modi government. Four elements loom significantly.

Firstly, the election of US President Donald Trump is leading to uncertainty and turbulence as he has combined contempt for his predecessor's policy reset in Middle East with a retreat from Trans Pacific Partnership and thus a revision of a China containing strategy. Additionally Trump seems to trust Russian president Vladimir Putin as an agent for cooperative solution to countering terrorism or solving old or ongoing crises in West Asia and Gulf. He combines such revisionism with adages like “America First” which can mean isolationism or merely an opening bid in a negotiation.  He has alternately wagged his finger at NATO allies or sought their goodwill.

One of the assumptions shaping Indian foreign policy over last two decades has been the certainty that US wanted a successful India as counterweight to rising China. Trump's outreach to President Xi Jinping, after initial hiccups when he seemed to question one-China, has been a transactional success as mutual interests have been adjusted at least in the short term. Thus India has to readjust its China policy to ensure that unnecessary belligerence is not allowed as US may no longer be willing to watch India's back.

Second factor is India's Pakistan policy, which has been over militarised and slowly space reduced for civil dialogue. Modi government has created for itself a "jingoism trap" as emotional reaction to each attack on a military camp in Jammu and Kashmir results in shouts resonating on television and social media for revenge. In the process of seeking a new way to break the old cycle of dialogue and terror Modi has reduced Pakistan policy to a tit-for-tat television spectacle. The assumption is that Pakistani military will get deterred by robust response to any act of terror. This policy has not worked so far, nor is likely to in the short run. But it has ensured the irrelevance of Pakistan’s civilian government in exercising whatever limited control it has on its army for enabling better relations with India. There must be redlines for breaking off engagement with Pakistan. But those cannot be solitary attacks by small groups of fedayeen.

Third issue facing India is Trump revising US’ Gulf and West Asia policy cleverly crafted by his predecessor who realised that Iran was vital to eliminating ISIS as it was able to create a Shia alliance running from Iran via Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. Saudis and their GCC partners were at best financiers who could back a motley group of undesirable militants to counter Assad government. But these clients in fact were started losing their followers to the ISIS once the Caliphate was formed across northern Syria and Iraq. Thus President Barack Obama unshackled Iran by endorsing its nuclear deal with P5+1. Saudis and UAE in particular had been very upset with this switch.

At the Riyadh Summit the Saudis used the bait of arms purchases from US and played on Trump’s anti Iran prejudices to make him revert to old handholding with Arab potentates in robes. The result has been an unprecedented falling out between GCC countries with Saudis, Emiratis and Bahrainis pillorying Qatar and on June 5 announcing severing of all relations with it. Kuwait and Oman refused to join this onslaught. Iran is the obvious target as Qatar shares the world’s largest gas field with that country and can hardly be expected to join an anti-Iran coalition.  The charge that Qatar is sponsoring terror, which Trump happily endorsed in a tweet on June 6, sounds hollow coming from Saudi Arabia which has been the font of Wahabbi ideology on which have been fed the first generation of radicalised Islamists.

Thus India with its six plus million diaspora and vast energy, commercial and financial interests can hardly view with resigned faith that the turbulence that Trump has left in his trail will self-resolve. Qatar is resisting stoically, despite its smaller size as it has the open support of Iran and the tacit backing of Turkey or even Russia. Belatedly Trump has realised that in fact Qatar hosts the largest US base in the region at al-Udeid, with 11,000 US personnel and 100 aircraft. But younger leaders of Saudi Arabia and UAE may be over-playing their hand as they do not have the muscle or the will to take on ISIS and Iran on their own. Punishing Qatar as an Iranian surrogate will not deter Iran. Thus Trump has little understood the Shia-Sunni antagonism and competition before tweet-supporting one of the factions. As PM Modi sets forth on a journey to Israel he too little understands that when passions are aroused in the region it becomes impossible to play all sides. That is why reportedly Saudi King Salman gave Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif a mouthful on clarifying their ambiguous stand.

Fourth is the China factor as their transgressing of Indian concerns has become more blatant. India too has cocked a snook at them by allowing Dalai Lama to tour Arunachal Pradesh and Tawang monastery with full regalia. Wisdom dictates that India should not allow two neighbours inimical to it to join hands more forthrightly than they have traditionally done. Thus poking a finger in the eyes of both, though it plays well domestically on social media, is poor diplomacy.

From the detritus of these new and disruptive developments Modi needs to craft a smarter approach that is not mere theatre. He also needs to seek quickly the de-escalation of the situation in the Kashmir valley. He may just find out otherwise that both at home and abroad his options have shrunk and time for urgent course correction overdue.

K. C. Singh, former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, is a veteran diplomat and renowned commentator.

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